Mish Phillips leaned into the wind and set herself to kick at goal on the floodlit Hurstbridge Bottom Oval. To get there she had to drive for a short time down a winding track in the dark, bumping over exposed tree roots as she went.
A hundred metres beyond the outer fence lay several stationary trains where they sat dormant for the night. Phillips was at the end of the line.
Every few minutes the wind whipped dust from the gravel car park across the field and she had to shield her eyes against the onslaught.
She began to approach the goal posts, beginning at a slow walk before progressing to a jog and sending the ball toward her target. The ball immediately veered left, flying across the face of the goal posts and missing completely.
Phillips was a long way from Florence, Italy, where she was a part of Australia’s first world champion Ultimate Frisbee team.
She was also out of her comfort zone and back to square one – a challenge she was relishing.
“When you’re at an elite level in a sport any gains you make in terms of skills is really slow and it takes a lot of effort just to make just a small percentage gain,” Phillips tells upstart.
“But when you’re at a beginning level in a sport you improve so fast and it’s really exciting to be back at that level actually. To be starting afresh and being able to have such improvement in my handballing and kicking.”
So why was an Ultimate Frisbee world champion struggling to learn the ins and outs of an unfamiliar game on an isolated and windswept oval?
Women’s football and professional sport in Australia was undergoing a revolution, and Phillips wanted to be a part of it.
The Australian Football League had announced its intentions to start a nationally-televised and country-wide women’s competition in just a few months’ time.
It had scoured the nation for elite female sporting talent and unearthed countless prospects for its upstart teams.
Mish Phillips and her sister Cat, both Ultimate Frisbee stars, were two of those athletes.
They had been identified by the talent search and placed in the AFL women’s academy to fast-track their skill acquisition before the league got underway.
Both were racing against the clock to prove themselves to one of the eight established clubs who would field women’s teams in the new competition.
Fast-forward four months, and Cat Phillips was streaming across the middle of Icon Park in front of 7000 fans.
Mish sat in that crowd and watched on with excitement as her younger sister gathered the ball in space and streaked towards the goal posts.
She hadn’t managed to find her way into the league like her sister had, but it didn’t change her beaming smile as Cat bolted across the floodlit turf.
Nigel Carmody, who was calling the game, raised the volume and pitch of his voice as she closed in on the goal.
“Inside 50… tracking back, wide open forward line. Phillips runs to 20 (metres)… and goals. Scores are level,” he yelled.
Cat was making waves in the national eye and Mish couldn’t be prouder.
Sarah Black, a journalist for the AFL website, is impressed by how quickly Cat Phillips has picked up a new set of skills.
“She is incredibly quick and has really been an integral part of the Melbourne forward-line which is remarkable considering she hasn’t played the sport much,” she tells upstart.
Phillips is just one of a number of cross-sport athletes who have been educed by the level of support the AFL can throw behind the new flagship of women’s professional sport in Australia.
Black considers athletes like Phillips, cricketer Jess Cameron and league Best and Fairest Erin Phillips good for the sport.
“I think it (the search for cross-sport athletes) has been a really good idea for the first few years of the league. Participation numbers haven’t been huge in the past so to top up with elite athletes, has added a different dimension to the game.”
Black foresees the allure of the bright lights of the AFLW will make the league a destination sport for Australia’s best female athletes.
“I think long term we’ll see less of those athletes switching because they’ll probably choose footy to begin with,” she says.
The AFLW has exploded onto Australia’s already jam-packed sporting calendar.
The first game between Carlton and Collingwood was a sell-out, with fans left locked outside the 22,000 seat capacity Icon Park.
“The reception from the wider community has been quite incredible,” Black says.
“That first match … every five minutes before the game you’d look up and see another couple of thousand people in the stands. It was an incredible atmosphere.”
While that incredible lock-out crowd hasn’t been repeated, attendance has remained strong.
“The big Victorian clubs have held pretty steady at about 7,500 I reckon and Adelaide has been really strong consistently topping 10,000,” Black says.
The rapid growth of the women’s game isn’t isolated to the professional format either.
“The playing numbers at grass root level for this year haven’t been finalised yet but speaking anecdotally, there’s a new competition starting out with the Victorian Amateur Football Association. They’ve had 40 teams register which is extraordinary numbers,” she says.
Black believes that groundswell of support will enable the league to expand on its operations; however it won’t be without its challenges.
“In five years’ time those numbers will feed through to the elite level and the AFL is firmly pushing for an 18-team league in the long-term,” she says.
“There’s a challenge when it comes to extending the league. Currently it’s just an eight week season and not much competition from the men’s league because they’re played at different times. As they start eating into the men’s season I think they’ll struggle to hold attention.”
“I’ve noticed in the papers in Melbourne the coverage has been dropping off as the men’s pre-season has ramped up.”
Black is confident in the long-term viability of the league despite the hurdles that lie in its path, as she believes Australia’s national game will always capture the attention of the masses.
“I think it’s a bit of a unique situation in that AFL is such an integral part of society in Australia. Women have always been really involved in footy and usually make up more than 50 per cent of the attendance so there was always going to be a demand,” she says.
The big stage that the AFLW can provide will also always be in demand, so don’t be surprised if you see more world-class athletes like the Phillips sisters lighting up our TV screens for years to come.